Alphas: Seattle's got two MVP-level attacking talents in Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Both acquisitions shook the earth to one extent or another when they were announced last year, and both pretty much underdelivered. If Seattle are going to keep pace in the Western arms race, both need to be at or near their best in 2014.
Health and fit: With five days to go until first kick, half the Seattle backline was nursing knocks of some sort. Chad Marshall and DeAndre Yedlin both sat out practice, while Leo González was listed at 85 percent, according to Sigi Schmid. The only one operating at peak capacity was Jalil Anibaba, who's getting used to a new team, a new surface and a new spot – central defense – after playing primarily right back for the Fire the last three years.
Stay the course: I asked our resident Sounders fan what he's most worried about this year. "Can they avoid the temptation to bring in a big midseason acquisition that screws up team chemistry?" Couldn't agree more, Ian. Seattle have as much talent as any team in the league, and need to give them time to marinate.
Star Attraction: Clint Dempsey
I still think that Osvaldo Alonso is their most important player (though Marshall might give him a run this year), but Dempsey's the straw that'll stir the drink. He's likely to play as something close to a trequartista, a Francesco Totti type who uses his strength and skill in possession when dropping deep but gets to the back post once the break is on.
Dempsey can and has done both of those things for both the USMNT and Fulham – and a bit for Tottenham – but he struggled mightily last season when trying to synthesize his goalscoring instincts with his playmaking responsibilities. It just didn't come off like it should have.
It'll have to this year. Schmid's going to give him the keys to the attack because, in all honesty, that's their best bet. It'll be up to Deuce to learn to play quicker, to make sure Martins gets his touches, and to understand when to make the safe play instead of the spectacular one.
He's got the skill set for it – look at the patience and vision he shows in the above GIF. The question is the mindset.
Probable Formation: 4-4-2 (diamond)
Major Acquisition: Chad Marshall
Schmid's best moment as an MLS coach – bossing the 2008 Columbus Crew to the Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double – came with Marshall as the dominant force on the backline. It also doubled as Marshall's best moment, as he won the first of two consecutive Defender of the Year awards and thumped home a classic headed goal off a corner in the Cup itself.
Since the second half of the 2009 season, however, Marshall just hasn't been at that level. He's been good, and often very good, but rarely dominant. And the Crew slowly slid down the standings from that season onward.
Can there be a career renaissance in Seattle under his old boss? Well, there pretty much has to be. The Sounders defense was slow and reactionary last year, and got carved up by a relentless and well-drilled Portland team in the playoffs. Marshall is a veteran of those huge games, and the hope will be that he can make sure the dam doesn't burst even when everything's flowing in the wrong direction.
SEE MORE: Transaction page
What He Said
“[Dempsey] is someone that we’re all familiar with. I don’t think we’ll really need a lot of time to feel comfortable around him. He’s a great player and I think we’re all excited about his arrival.”
Fantasy Pick: Obafemi Martins ($9.5m/ selected by 10.4 percent of teams) – He's injury-free and in strong form at the moment, so all signs point to him getting off to a good start early on. Had eight goals and two assists in 1,500 minutes least season, and Sounders fans can look for him to surpass the 15-goal mark in 2014 as long as he remains healthy. At $9.5m, he's on the higher end when it comes to starting forwards, but it looks like he'll be worth it.
Players to watch: Kenny Cooper, DeAndre Yedlin, Brad Evans
Look, if it all works as Adrian Hanauer & Co. hope, then this team is in an ax fight with LA, Portland, SKC and maybe one or two others for the Supporters' Shield. And then they get hot in November and deliver the MLS Cup that's the true apple of everyone's eye up in the Emerald City. They have as much talent as anyone in the league, so there ya go.
But things have a habit of not working out perfectly, so you've got to take an honest look and try to find where the middle ground is. For this team, it's probably something close to what the 2012 Red Bulls – a hellacious attacking team with a questionable defense – accomplished. They were able to outscore teams during the regular season, constructing a number of passing sequences that would have made Borussia Dortmund proud.
Then the playoffs came, and they beat themselves (spectacularly). D.C. United forced New York to grind it out, and they just couldn't.
That's exactly what the Sounders are going to face, especially if, as expected, they morph into that 4-4-2 diamond midfield that showed such promise at the end of last year. The key against diamond teams is to deny the playmaker – the tip of the diamond – freedom to actually make plays. Make it ugly.
The advantage of the diamond is that, by the formation's very nature, you have a player of incredible gifts in that role. Someone who can take the ugly and make it beautiful. Build goals out of thin air.
Pressure's on, and the clock is offiially ticking.